Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.
I was at a tournament in Reno last week and a young player approached me. He said, “I read you in Poker Player, and it seems like you’re always able to make rational decisions. Don’t you ever get caught up in the action? Do you ever think you’re beat, but call anyway?”
I told him, of course, sometimes you’ll think you’re beat, but you call anyway. But it isn’t because you’re caught up in the action. At least it shouldn’t be for that reason. Sometimes you think you only have a small chance of winning, but the pot is so big relative to the size of the bet that you don’t need to believe you’re going to win this time. You only need to believe that if you make the same call over and over, forever and ever, that you’ll win enough times so you’ll show an overall profit on the pots that you do win.
A great truth and beyond
But, then I went way beyond that explanation and provided him with a great truth: In limit poker games on the last betting round, you should usually call anyway, even though you think you’re beat! Only when the odds against you winning are extreme should you fold.” The same thing applies in no-limit games when the bets are small-size or average.
Here’s the text of an audio lecture I delivered a few years ago…
Calling when you’re probably beat
The following words echo in my mind, haunting, forever near me. The words are “throw it away, he’s probably got you beat.” There aren’t many words you remember verbatim after 45 years, but I remember those. I was 12 years old, playing poker at my Uncle Bob’s house.
There was over two dollars in the pot. Oh, don’t laugh, I was a 12 year old kid and it was 1957, and two dollars meant something to me. Uncle Bob’s next-door neighbor made a 25-cent bet. That was the maximum-sized bet allowed – a true quarter-limit game.
Uncle Bob had just come back from the refrigerator and leaned over my shoulder. He looked at my two pair, impressing me with his wisdom acquired over years of playing poker, and he uttered those words: “throw it away, he’s probably got you beat.”
So, I threw it away and the neighbor took the pot. He was gracious enough to show his hand – queens-up. Fortunately, I’d folded just jacks-up, so I would have lost another quarter had I called. But, that’s not the point. I probably should have called.
Now I’m going to teach you a way to focus in poker that will save you a lot of money, because – if your temperament is like most players – you probably have a tendency to want to get involved in too many pots, But, strangely, if you’re a serious player who is trying to be rational in making decisions later on in the hand, you’re in danger of being too smart for your own good, throwing away hands when you really shouldn’t.
Reasons to fold
And that scenario is so typical of people trying to play poker seriously, it’s almost an epidemic. They enter pots a little more liberally than they believe they should, because they don’t want to be labeled as rocks and because they unconsciously just plain like the action. And sometimes that’s OK. But once involved in a pot, especially in the late stages, they’re looking for reasons to fold, because they take great pride in not paying off weaker foes who bet. And by folding, they’re usually right, and often they get to see the proof shown down. And this rewards them psychologically and reinforces in their minds the notion that they did the right thing by folding.
But, often they didn’t. The point is, you’re supposed to lose most of the time when you call. If you’re calling and winning most of the time, you’re actually costing yourself a whole lot of money. How come? Well, if you’re winning most of the time that you call on the river in a limit poker game, that probably means that times when you would have had one chance in five of winning, you folded. You would have been a four-to-one underdog, so you threw your hand away. But most of those times, the pot was laying you much more than four-to-one on the call. And by folding, even though it usually turned out right that time, you cost yourself a great deal of money, on average.
Suppose the pot is $1,000 and it costs you $100 to call and you have one chance in five of winning. That means, over time, you’re going to lose $100 four times for each one time you win $1,000. That’s $400 lost, $1,000 won and, so, a $600 profit on five calls. That’s a cool $125 profit, on average, each time you call – even though you’re probably going to feel smug if you fold, because you’ll usually be right. You’ve just got to call a single opponent very often on the last betting round when the pot is big, even though you’re likely to lose. Not always, of course, but more often than many serious players do. They tend to think themselves out of the pot, for fear of paying off a weak foe and looking bad. But they’re not just thinking themselves out of pots, they’re thinking themselves out of profit.
Get used to it
The secret is to fold only when the evidence is overwhelming that you don’t have a chance of winning commensurate with the pot size. And that means, one on one on the last round of betting, you will call most of the time and lose most of the time. Get used to it, because that’s how it should be. The bettor wins most of the time; the caller loses most of the time. And if you win most of your calls, don’t be proud, you’re probably costing yourself a lot of money.
Remember the game when I laid down jacks-up, because Uncle Bob advised, “Throw it away, he’s probably got you beat.” Well Uncle Bob was right that he probably did have me beat. But the pot was large enough for me to have called that quarter bet. Sure, my opponent had queens-up, and I only had jacks-up, but he might have had tens-up or a pair or aces, or he might have been bluffing. I should have called, realizing that I was probably going to lose.
Anyway, I said that I would teach you how to focus during a poker game. And, here’s the way that’s most fitting for players of many common temperaments: In first deciding whether to play a hand and also when the pot is small, begin with a bias toward folding and only call if powerful reasons present themselves. When the pot is large, especially on the last round of betting, begin with a bias toward calling and only fold if powerful reasons present themselves.
And there you have it – it’s a formula that really doesn’t matter from a purely logical point of view, because the secret then is to simply weigh all factors and always make the most profitable decision. But it’s a formula that does matter from the standpoint of how most poker players actually think, and it guards against the two biggest errors that many serious poker players make in limit games – entering too many pots and being too quick to fold on the river, just because they’re pretty sure they’re beat. You need to be very choosy about the hands you enter pots with in limit poker games. And once that pot grows, especially on the last betting round, you better have a very good reason to throw your hand away.
So, today, we make an attitude adjustment. In limit poker, we always fold in the beginning, unless we have compelling reasons to call or raise. And we always call when the pot is big on the final betting round, unless we have compelling reasons to fold. And this same advice applies to no-limit poker, when the betting is small.— MC